Sparkling wines are inherently festive – from wedding celebrations to Valentine’s romance to toasting Dick Clark for yet another Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, we tend to wait for a “big” occasion to uncork something carbonated. That’s a shame, because bubbly wines can be some of the most versatile when it comes to food and wine pairing and are well suited to celebrating life’s small moments just as surely as the big ones.
This season, resolve to educate yourself and your sparkling palate and quit blaming the bubbly for your headache too by the way. It’s not the CO2 any more than it’s the sulfites causing you morning-after misery; it’s called over-consumption. That said, el cheapo sparkling wines are just that, cheaply made and that’s a danger one can easily avoid by avoiding wines that cost the same as, say, a Big Mac.
Just how the bubbles get into the bottle is the major factor in pricing. Understanding the difference between “real” Champagne, sparkling fine wines made in the Champagne method and bulk bubblies made as inexpensively as possible is the key. Authentic Champagne wines come from a specific place, the Champagne region in France where strict quality controls merge with hundreds of years of experience to ensure a quality product. Importantly, the magical secondary fermentation that makes Champagne unique takes place inside each and every individual bottle; it’s a more costly method that results in a finer product and finer, i.e., smaller, bubbles. Bulk wines made in the Charmat method enclose the secondary fermentation in massive stainless steel tanks that are cost-effective for processing large quantities of bubbly in one fell swoop; it’s a rougher, coarser process that necessarily results in rougher, coarser bubbles. Think of the old “Tiny Bubbles” song and you’ll start to understand qualitative differences between great Champagnes and something like Korbel’s “California Champagne.”
A note on language: while a few older brands can legally get away with calling non-Champagne products “Champagne,” nowadays it’s tougher to fool wine-savvy consumers. Much like that Fendi bag made of vinyl and purchased from an eager street vendor down on Canal in New York, if it isn’t from the Champagne region in France, it just isn’t the real McCoy. Increasingly, Champagne producers are partnering with other place-specific wine regions like Port, Napa and Sherry to more vigorously protect their products from counterfeits. (Napa wines made in China? They’re out there.)
That said, there are many fantastic sparkling wines made the world over that deserve your attention. In the last decade, bubbly wines from the Veneto region in Italy have put Prosecco on the world wine map; better Proseccos are dry but with lovely aromas of green melon and white peach that are easy on the palate and on the wallet. I have also long been a fan of sparkling cava from the Peñedés region in Spain. Typically, these wines feature a trio of indigenous grapes from Catalonia that, when vinified in the método clásico can yield amazing results. Lastly, don’t overlook domestic sparklers. Brand-savvy champenoises in need of more space and land have smartly partnered up with California; collaborations like Louis Roederer’s in the Anderson Valley or Taittinger’s via Domaine Carneros marry the technical savvy of Champagne with the awesomeness of our California climate. And don’t forget the Pacific Northwest, where Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle remains a colossal market force while tiny boutique producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are working miracles.
This holiday season, I encourage you to challenge yourself by buying something different for your toasting. As always, I suggest you find a small, passionately curated retail wine shop where the staff is more likely to share their favorite treasures. Don’t just buy the brand you know, how very boring. Try something new and take a few notes while you’re at it so you remember what you like and don’t. Ring in the New Year by resolving to be just a bit more adventurous with your purchases in 2012. Cheers!